September 2, 2015 Edition

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Walnut Ridge native Billy Schmidt is a trails and grounds horticulture tech and volunteer coordinator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
Submitted Photo

WR native
Billy Schmidt
finds niche at
Crystal Bridges

John Bland

Walnut Ridge native Billy Schmidt's career path is a classic success story. He is proof that giving your best effort and learning all you can to improve your job skills and knowledge base can make a crucial difference.

Schmidt serves as trails and grounds horticulture technician at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. He is also the coordinator of the volunteers who give their time to assist the trails and grounds department at the museum.

After attending Walnut Ridge School, Billy moved to Northwest Arkansas for an opportunity to work at Federal Express. After leaving Federal Express, he went to work in the nursery business.

Even though he grew up in a farm family, Billy, who is the son of Debbie Schmidt and Wilson Schmidt, said he had little knowledge of landscaping or trees, shrubs and other plants. He would spend three years at Bogle's Garden City Nursery in Bentonville, where he worked under Cheryl Fraker, who was in charge of trees and shrubs.

For a time, and in addition to the nursery business, Billy worked for a family-owned delivery business. That work included delivering prototypes of goods to Walmart buyers who were considering purchasing the item in mass quantities.

Billy also spent five years at Westwood Nursery in Rogers, where he served as coordinator of trees and shrubs. Two major parts of his job there were customer service and maintaining inventory.

Learns customer
service skills

He found that customers often need advice and direction when choosing plants for their yards. "I really learned how to 'tweak' my customer service and make it a pleasant experience - a good experience," he said. "I learned how to be a people person; they became very comfortable with me."

His customers were very happy with his service, and he began offering freelance consultations for them. In this sideline, Billy would make onsite visits to his clients' yards and gardens. He would also sometimes draw up landscaping plans for them.

"I kept them (the customer) very involved in the process," he said, adding that he wanted them to be happy with the end result.

"I never went to school for this," Billy said. Through his mentors, experience and self-teaching he learned about trees, plants and landscaping. "I had guidance along the way," he noted.

Billy heard about the job opening at Crystal Bridges from a part-time employee at the museum who thought Schmidt was ideally suited for it.

After the interview, Billy would endure a waiting period of some two weeks before he received the news that he had been hired. He began work at Crystal Bridges on April 29, 2013.

As a horticulture technician, Billy serves as one of the right-hand men for the lead horticulturist. Billy, along with two other horticulture technicians, do a lot of the work, such as planting trees and building beds for plants. Crystal Bridges contains 120 acres of woodlands and 10 acres of landscaped gardens, not counting the many acres covered in grass.

The gardens at Crystal Bridges consist primarily of native plant material. Native trees include such varieties as red maples, bald cypress, native magnolias, redbuds and dogwoods. Native perennials might include black-eyed Susans, liatris, native mint, mountain mint, daisies, coreopsis and butterfly milkweed, which happen to be very important to the Monarch butterfly migration, while native shrubs include viburnums and azaleas.

"We are constantly in a state of change," Billy said of Crystal Bridges. "We want to keep people coming back."

One of the current works on display is a monumental outdoor sculpture called 'Maelstrom.' The sculpture is on loan by the artist and was not purchased by the museum. Another exciting addition to the grounds of Crystal Bridges is the reconstruction of a house designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is scheduled to open for public viewing on Nov. 11.


Another part of Billy's job at the museum is coordinating volunteers for the trails and grounds department. This is where his customer service skills are put to good use. "There are presently 55 to 60 volunteers in the "Avant-Gardener" program at the museum. "We haven't quite reached our potential for volunteers yet," Schmidt added.

Crystal Bridges is sending Billy to Santa Barbara, Calif., later this month to attend a symposium concentrating on botanical gardens and how to preserve a volunteer core. He will be networking with other coordinators of volunteer gardeners. "Our goal is to make our volunteer core world-class, like the museum," he said.

At Crystal Bridges, the grounds and trails, with its outdoor art, sculptures and gardens is as much a part of the museum as the art on the inside. And horticulture, Billy's job, is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants."

Billy recalled his first real exposure to art was being in one of Ginger Bibb's Walnut Ridge High School art classes. "She brings something out in everybody," he said. "It started with her. She exposed me to it at first. She definitely planted the seed (of art) with me."

"Art, architecture, nature and education" are the four pillars of Crystal Bridges. The emphasis on education is evident most mornings at the museum, where one can see a stream of yellow school buses arriving for a field trip, Billy said. "We have great school programs."

Established by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, Crystal Bridges offers free general admission to the public.

"The Waltons always stress how important it is to give back to the community, and that's exactly what they do," he said.

Billy Schmidt has found his niche at Crystal Bridges, and the museum has obviously found a staunch advocate and valued employee in him.

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